Kamome Cafe

Kamome Cafe (Seagull Cafe) was a neat little project that happened in August where I managed to channel all my interests and skills into and produce a satisfying result. I ran a pop-up cafe in Nishijin, Kyoto for fours days by myself, where I came up with the entire menu, sourced all the ingredients directly from local farmers and served The Barn coffee from Berlin. The event, in a way, was a manifestation of my convictions on which I generally operate and sort of validated them for me. For this reason it was a very important experience that anchored me in the waves of everyday life as a lone aikido kenshusei/illustrator/other, and so while these aren't dazzling insights, I feel they're worth sharing.

Saying 'yes' is generally more interesting and rewarding than saying 'no.'

My dad, for as pessimistic and conservative he could be about things sometimes, was always a man to say "yes" to a job and work out how to do it afterwards. This is a model I have also followed and has previously led me to singular experiences such as building a bee-friendly green roof on top of a shed, based on a solid week of reading books on the subject beforehand and a keen knowledge of soil and eco-friendly gardens, all for a show garden at Ireland's biggest garden show. It comes down to a sort of loose equation of balancing fun, learning and money against possibility of total failure. Generally, it's difficult to fail so spectacularly that you would actually not gain anything. If your first impression is not that something is totally and terrifyingly incomprehensible, then you can probably work something out. Similarly, when it was offered to me to do some sort of pop-up in Cafe Frosch, it was easy maths of making tasty things and having people pay to eat it vs. risk of having a stock pile of homemade meals-to-go in the freezer for several weeks after the event was over. So I said "yes" and things were in motion, as opposed to saying "no", which would have the world slightly more boring. You might think that it would be maintaining status quo but I think not doing something has as much an effect on your life as doing something, but in a much more negative way, and the more the pattern repeats, the smaller your world gets and you are constantly haunted by regret. Scary.

Communication is key, especially when you're drowning in a swap of personal trauma.

This was early summer and we were still a ways off, just having idle conversations about a concept and things I like about Ireland and cafes. Then I got blown rather drastically off course: I had a near mental breakdown due to stress in other areas of my life. I was nearly incapable of even being in public without fear of suddenly breaking down crying, at home I spent most of my time sleeping. I certainly wasn't planning my event or even thinking much further ahead than two days time. In this time Sumi-san, the owner of Frosch, was incredibly supportive and said that if I didn't want to do it it was fine. This constant stream of communication in the run-up was very important. In Frosch I felt very free to be myself, whatever kind of pathetic snivelling creature that sometimes meant I was, and while I wasn't sure if I would have the mental strength to do the event, I frequently had fun conversations with Sumi-san about what kind of things would be interesting or delicious. Thanks in no small part to her outstanding support as a friend, I eventually overcame my other problems and became mentally healthy enough to say with confidence that the Cafe was definitely on. 

Starting with blue sky is fine. Then get some structure, or find someone who can make you have structure. 

My concept for the cafe pop-up started off rather unwieldy. Not satisfied with putting my cooking, cafe and people skills to use all day, I wanted to make as much of the time as possible to play out what I felt were all Ireland's strengths, turning to my other loves: art and craft. I wanted to do screenings, maybe talks introducing things and people I felt worthy of note, maybe hang artwork, maybe MAKE artwork. At this point Sumi-san pulled me back down to earth saying that it was probably impossible to do everything at once, but there would be more opportunities in the future for such events. I think she was also worried I would overwork myself again to the detriment of my mental health. I listened to her on this and shelved my extracurricular plans for another time. 

I wanted to exhibit lots of artwork but in the end I just sold the tote bag I had designed for The Barn Berlin. Thanks to them for sending me over a few.

I wanted to exhibit lots of artwork but in the end I just sold the tote bag I had designed for The Barn Berlin. Thanks to them for sending me over a few.

Going back to the food, I had tons of ideas and lists and recipes but I hadn't quite worked out a menu. Here Sumi-san presented me with another challenge so pedestrian, it hadn't crossed my mind for even a moment: to come up with a "theme" for my event and to introduce it and myself with a blurb for the Frosch homepage and other advertising. The reason being, she explained, for the Japanese customers to get an easy handle on what the event was about so they would come. I was so focused on making the event fabulous I couldn't imagine having to explain to anyone why it was fabulous. It was even more troubling to have to introduce myself to a general audience, having many different identities depending on what day and even what time of the day it is. After struggling for a while to express my multi-coloured aikidoist/illustrator/foodie-self in a way that wasn't stressful to read, I settled for what seemed to me the almost comically understated: "Robin from Ireland". 

Building imagery on Instagram leading up to the event.

Building imagery on Instagram leading up to the event.

As for a theme, I felt I had already sorted this one ages ago with my fixation on the pleasing sound of "Kamome Cafe". For me, nothing says "Dublin" like a seagull trying to take a bit out of your sandwich or glare menacingly at you from the street curb by the garbage bags while you sit outside drinking a coffee. I then extrapolated on the tenuous connection between seagulls and Summer, the sea and nostalgia for Europe. This is the sort of vague image Japanese people tend to like and I felt like it was one of those cultural loops you just have to jump through to make things run smoothly. No one was going to actually cross-check the relevance of menu items to the theme. 

This was all a domestic bit of game-playing and it was probably good to have had a steady hand on my shoulder to guide me through it. Being a bright young upstart, I can tend to not be bothered by or even notice conventions, quite happy to blaze a new trail without thinking to look back and see if anyone is willing to follow. Even the concept of a "pop-up" was something that had to be explained as a "limited time" experience because Pop-up Culture is only just starting in Japan right now. 

Trust yourself, your instinct, your experience. If you think you can do it, you can do it.

This sounds terrifically cliched and can actually be hard to follow through on but it turned out to be true for me. In the two weeks leading up to the event I became busier than I have been all year. I was literally working from the time I got up in the morning till after midnight everyday on an unrelated but total dream project. I scheduled to wrap up with that project mere days before the event started. In this time I could not prep for the cafe and still didn't have a set menu. I wasn't entirely sure what vegetables my farmer friends were going to provide, and when they did give me lists of what was on offer, I gave back completely arbitrary numbers for how much I wanted of things based on thoughts like "it's useful to have a lot of that" or even simply "tomatoes are great at this time of year".  

About two days before I had settled on four sandwiches and then a changing salad menu depending on what I had to hand. This way I still didn't have to work out exactly how to use the vegetables until the day I was using them. When it came to the day before and I saw the mass of produce I had to get through I questioned myself, wondering if I had been a bit too eager. It seemed like mountains of produce and I felt an immense pressure to not waste one precious bit of it. Miraculously, I wasted nothing. The amount I had sustained me perfectly over the four days without having to buy anything extra or be left over with anything. Of course it's probably less of a miracle and more a result of years of estimating quantities of food with Kevin in Dublin and also being a food waste fanatic - once, in third year of college I accidentally let a one euro box of Tesco button mushrooms go bad because they got lost in the depths of a shared fridge. I will remember them forever. Also juggling the menu so I used less or more veg day on day. The last day I made a kicking minestrone and put it on instead as one of the salads. I had also made a focaccia so I could offer a soup set. This flexibility day on day to offer the best of what I had to hand was deeply satisfying. 

The kitchen work itself was also terrifically therapeutic. I had not worked in this systematic way of prepping and making mise-en-place for a long time. Getting in early and doing that mindless stuff like chopping, frying, boxing things while listening to music I like over the cafe sound system was familiar and comforting and made the space mine. Each day, look at the remaining vegetables and decide the salads, write them up, make up more of whatever I was low on, check the carrigheen puddings - probably the only really Irish and "on-theme" thing on the menu. Each day was a little better and more organised and delicious than the last. Each day in I added and took away based on what worked and what didn't. The zucchini cake that appeared on the second day made up for the failed cinnamon scrolls.

The first day was a rush as a lot of friends came to show their support and was a bit hectic, but from day two I was organised enough to be able to do everything myself without being stressed out or making people overly wait. That confidence that comes from getting through each day at a profit by yourself from things you made is probably one of the most valuable experiences for me this year.  

It's all about the people.

Oh god, it really is so very much all about the people. It may have been just me standing behind the counter but if it wasn't for Sumi-san, Ralf of The Barn Berlin, Kevin answering my questions about things at all hours, my produce-supplying friends, and then of course most importantly all the amazing people who came and ate and drank coffee at the cafe it would have been nothing. I really felt a powerful sense of gratitude to those people everyday. 

Since quite a number of years ago I've been doing food and event related projects in Dublin and always it's been about having a network of great people to work with, to call on, and then a great network of friends and supporters who are rooting for you that have made it brilliant and successful. For about a year I worked at a Kyoto style bar/restaurant that has been running ten years. I saw how the regulars were the ones that really made the restaurant turn over on a daily basis. The life-blood of the place. Here also, when stuck Ken-san, the owner occasionally calls on ex-staff friends to help out and has helped out at their places in return. So for me, this was an unquestionable truth: no man is an island, your livelihood, especially in this kind of business IS your social connections. You have to love them and respect them and they'll pay it back. 

However back in the dojo, where most of my life happens, someone who I respect a lot told me that they felt the key to success was to have a compact life with as few social connections as possible and that getting involved with people was messy and distracting from our sole pursuit of aikido. I had struggled for quite a long time to see how that made any sense, especially as aikido is about connecting with people quite physically.

In doing this event, I was blown away by how many people went out of their way, brought friends to eat my food. People I've known for only a year or less wanted to come and spend time in the little world I'd created for four days. I got amazing feedback like "It was delicious and a great chance to catch up that friend, I haven't seen them for ages, thank you!". One person came every single day in order to try all four sandwiches. And finally to top it all off, on the last day three Japanese people my age came in and stood at the counter and asked if I recognised them. We last saw year other maybe five years ago when they were studying in Trinity College Dublin and I was a member of the Japanese society there. We hadn't really ever been in touch since then but they had seen the event over Facebook and as they live in Kansai they came to show support. I dunno, maybe I am easily impressed but I think that's absolutely amazing. With that I felt very decisively that I was fucking right. It all starts and ends with the people. If you meet amazing ones, hold on to them no matter what. Even if it's just a tenuous Facebook connection. 

So once again, a heartfelt thanks to everyone who made the Kamome Cafe project a success. For each thing I served, I honestly feel like I got back double. Thank you.

So that's the story of Kamome Cafe. I hope there was something in there for you. For me it was the start of a huge turnaround in my life here in Kyoto that's made me happier and more confident in my strange life choices. The next part will be the sister event in Dublin: Kyoto Soul that happened two weeks or so later. Stay tuned!

The Escapist

As a devoted Monocle consumer I awaited my copy of The Escapist with a sense giddy anticipation, ready to bask in the “sunshine on paper” as it was described on Monocle radio, and at the same time with an inward sigh thinking that’s probably as close to a summer holiday as I might get: aspirational window shopping from my utilitarian accommodation of the kenshusei shisetsu, a world away from the Nice Things and Beautiful People usually fill the pages of a Monocle publication.

At that time I had forgotten that, in a sense I was already living The Escapist dream. I escaped the nine to five about two years ago, first getting by somehow while having all sorts of food-centered adventures in Dublin, now, I’m operating even further outside the normal framework. Indeed if I chose to I could phrase my current situation rather grandly: an aikido practitioner living in the traditional, machiya-lined northern part of Kyoto city on a intense training program to become a professional martial artist. I could curate my photo uploads to snaps of the Budo centre’s traditional-style training hall, the Kamo river, leafy temples and tasteful cafe interiors (and in fact for the most part I do). None of this really speaks anything of the financial uncertainty, the utilitarian dojo-owned share house designed by the ergonomically illiterate, or the strict training schedule which makes up the greater part of daily life. It’s living the dream, but the dream is actually tough going. Meanwhile, all that nice cultural stuff just sits in the background out of focus - Kyoto becomes a fishbowl where you just go around and round in the same circles week on week while the heat steadily rises and then remains trapped by the surrounding mountains.

This unseen, unglamorous daily reality is taken to extremes once the summer sets in proper: shedding litres of sweat in a tatami lined box with about twenty other people, throwing and taking falls, trying to aim your landing a few centimetres away from the visible print of someone else’s sweat drenched dogi. Any exotic thrill of living in Kyoto for martial arts is soon lost in that unforgiving heat bog of a city where temperatures sit at 35 degrees Celsius. The mere act of bowing in at the start of training produces visible beads of perspiration and in the time you’re not dragging yourself up from a pool of your own sweat after taking break falls over and over again in the dojo, your main preoccupation is laundry and the efficient rotation of dojo wear.

So when The Escapist arrived I was more than ready to be invited to feel the breeze of Beirut while lying on the floor my room underneath underneath the air conditioner. As it happened however, I got a slice of the real deal - to take my own journey that was very much in the spirit of the magazine. 

A few days after the magazine arrived, due to carelessness on my part, my travel arrangements to an eight hour aikido seminar in Odawara were voided. At first I was furious at myself for losing out on 2000 yen overnight bus hell; due to spending most of our time on unpaid training, we kenshusei are generally in a perpetual state of poverty. This rules out flashy options like the Shinkansen, but, when I talked with the others I was reminded that August is the season to buy a Seishun 18 ticket in Japan. For about 10,000 yen it can be used for five journeys on any local train. A nice feature is that multiple people can use the same ticket (each counting as one of the five journeys) so, with two of my fellow kenshusei, we bought one to take the train from Kyoto to Yugawara, a stop before Odawara, our final destination. This was due to it being cheaper to stay in Yugawara and travel forward on the day of the seminar. 

Last year I Inter-railed solo around Europe, and as such I have Passing Time on Trains down to a fine art, but I was surprised at the how fluidly seven hours passed with two travelling companions, homemade cake and a game of shiratori - though the latter was abandoned between trains after about an hour. There were many changes of trains but while they looked like an awful lot of work as a list on a timetable, in reality were very smooth and easy. 

Once we arrived in Yugawara it was already dark and most places were closed, but so delighted were we to move our legs the fifteen minute walk Google maps lead us on was very agreeable. We found ourselves at a non-descript street near the edge of town where there was a Teishoku-ya - a place to get a set Japanese style set meal for a reasonable price. Having lived in Kyoto about six months now I’d become sort of desensitised to the splendour of all the shrines and temples, though walking through this new environment, I was struck anew by the pleasure of being in a beautiful place, in this small seaside town south Tokyo of all places, somewhere I didn’t know existed until the week before. The small town atmosphere with a hint of the sea - in the air but also in the pointed reminders of the sea level at where ever you looked, the streets lined with paper lanterns for o-bon and the black shape of the mountains - totally different to Kyoto - somehow more open. 

At the Teishoku-ya we had a simple and delicious meal of rice, miso soup, grilled fish, a little salad and chawanmushi to the comfortable backdrop of mindless evening television. From there we contacted our ryokan owner who came and picked us up. What initially seemed like an exemplary gesture of Japanese hospitality was soon evidently more of a necessity as we rode the car up a steep winding hill devoid of any illumination. 

The ryokan was old, it seemed like it might be a converted care home - the layout was strange and the owners were insistent on the use of the elevator for a journey between floors of about ten seconds by stairs. It’s selling point was the ‘mikan bath’ which was literally a big Japanese style bath filled with citrus bobbing about on the surface filling the bathroom with steamy zestiness, was a new and slightly surreal experience. There was also a coveted rotemburo - outdoor bath which we were entitled to use for a half an hour. Being the unlikely trio of an Irish woman, a Japanese man and a French man, it was delicately agreed the fairest way was to divide this time into two fifteen minute slots with me going first. Rotemburo against the clock is not exactly the gently restorative experience Japanese people get dreamy-eyed over, but it wasn’t unsatisfying.  

The room was somewhat more equipped than your average European budget hotel, what’s considered the essentials in hospitality and how it varies from place to place is always interesting. Here, it seems one cannot get by without a hot water dispenser, lacquer box with full Japanese tea set, low table with big plush zabuton, in addition to the tv and hairdryer. Our futons were laid out already on the immaculate tatami. A huge window faced down on the town towards the mountain and though it wasn’t visible at the given hour, in the morning we woke to a spectacular vista, which is just what you want when you wake up in a strange place.

In the morning we had a leisurely stroll along the citrus tree lined mountain road, then took another quick soak in the baths before getting ready for an intense weekend of sweating it out on the tatami. Sitting in the wooden lined bath by myself at seven a.m. facing an unfamiliar mountain range which was vibrant in the August morning sunshine, I perused an article about Perth and felt a deep sense of pleasure at how I had come to be here, a how happy coincidence and lack of both money and expectations opened the door to an overall richer experience than the most obvious travel option. To recall the actual seminar only draws up a hazy blur of people, litres Pocari Sweat and even more actual sweat, it's the memory of the unexpected journey with two unlikely companions that lingers sweetly: sunlight citrus and the sea, and will remain something to treasure.